A certain glint in Cairo.


It must have been somewhere along the airport road heading downtown that I became aware I had fallen madly in love. The spell the city had put on me had been hypnotic and swift and as I opened the car window sighing and inhaling the dusty dawn air I knew I was done for.

This city seemed like a mysterious man dressed like a Saharan Tuareg warrior. Standing on the edge of the vast desert he seemed to speak to me in a tongue I couldn’t quite understand and knowing this his eyes danced playfully as he beckoned me to gaze towards the dowry chest that he was opening. Picking up the glittering gems my eyes fell upon all the things I had ever wanted … the pink light from a reflected moon caught on an ocean of the purest sand, ornate Fatamid doors handcrafted by a man who had turned to dust centuries ago, faded pages written over in Kufic script, the dusk light seeping through the arches of an Abyassid mosque while, above, crenellations seemed to dance like the way the people on paper doll chains do, crumbling Belle Epoque apartment buildings on carbon monoxide boulevards, the calm, balmy air above the Nile at dusk, the scent of earth and the cold touch of stone along serpentine alleyways and above them all a million voices proclaiming the greatness of God. The realisation that there could exist a place so beautifully aligned to my soul made me fall silent. I realised the Magical City really did exist and it was called Cairo.

I don’t know why I was so different as a child and why now I was being drawn to Cairo instead of London and all the other “usuals.” Around the age of four I had almost died of meningitis and maybe at that time somewhere in my psyche I had decided to really live, to explore, to live life to the fullest. In a way I guess I could never quite forget that I had been granted a second chance at life. While others were playing with toy soldiers and dolls I, in my mind, was travelling amongst the stars. I wanted to see everything, to know everything, to feel everything. During my childhood adventures in dusty attics and along tree branches I knew I had already found treasure. It was the cover of one of my grandmother’s old records and on it a photo of the dome of a mosque. How I would look at it for hours, mesmerized by the ornate patterns and hints of the exotic. Later at around eight years old I was awestruck by a photo of the Taj Mahal and would draw it over and over. I already knew back then I would see them all one day. I was aware of Islam even before I knew the name of the language I spoke or the street I lived in.

My journey towards love, towards Cairo, had been a long one. Over the years I had wandered across many cities and some of them had even charmed me. I had been in search of something I couldn’t quite explain, a driving force you could say, and like a tiny fish in a vast ocean I knew I had to persevere, to continue. Like lovers those cities had stood before me holding bronze scales in their hands balancing their treasures which, in the end, could never quite match mine.

There had been Manhattan, it’s vibrant lights and optimism matching the energetic bursts of my teenage years. Then there had been Isfahan and how on one starry night I had noticed the moonlight caught in the azure tiles of the dome of it’s vast mosque and how to console myself when leaving I had carried off it’s heart, a broken piece of glazed tile which I still treasure today. Then there had been my great love which had reigned over me for nine years, the city of Delhi and it’s old ramshackle Muslim quarter of Shahjahanabad. It was the way the gingerbread sandstone of the Mughal architecture and the red cloth of women’s saris had made me feel, the way stranger’s faces had peered out to me from behind the wooden latice screens of ancient havelis. On top of that there had been the frenetic streetscapes of Delhi itself, a Dickensian underworld full of street urchins and the dreams they held, renewed in their eyes by the sunlight of every dawn and how at night, dejected, those same eyes seemed to soften and resign themselves to what life had so cruelly thrown at them. Delhi though, in hindsight, had been the kind of lover that had been quite brutal. The kind of lover who could reduce you to tears with the flick of an eye and who would try to kiss you better at night.

Cairo on the other hand released an optimism within me without question. Since that first day I have returned to the city a number of times and walked it’s streets for many hours to try and pinpoint, to try and understand, but each time I seem to move further towards oblivion. It’s hard to say what it is that draws me there. It could be it’s traffic clogged boulevards and abandoned artdeco cinemas, or timewarped Café American where men in suits seem to work for the CIA or Mossad, or it’s busy sidewalks where you still see old waiters standing outside Café Riche in tattered tuxedos where, inside, amongst rickety chairs and tables hang faded photographs of old Egyptian writers and filmstars of long ago, maybe it’s when drinking Qahwa Arabiya I stare out towards the streets and notice an old type of glamour, where at times the call to prayer seems repeated through every radio in every shop. The Islamic Paris and yet so much more than Paris could ever be.

As I have grown older I think one of the most important things I have learned is that life is not so much about what you say or do but more about the energy that you project towards others. Humans seem to like bright, shiny things and seeing as that is how I feel in Cairo it’s inhabitants seem to be drawn to me in the most incredible ways. One fine afternoon I remember walking through a poor neighbourhood at the foot of the Citadel where I went around with a gang of teenage girls and how they told me about their lives, how they had never heard of the country I had been born in, how they loved the color of my hair and shade of lipstick, how they admired me because my hotel was near the Nile and I was lucky enough to look at it’s waters everyday, how I became aware that luck to those girls was nothing more than to simply be able to look at a river.

I will never forget the moment one afternoon when, while waiting for a taxi, I glanced across the dusty dual carriageway to gaze upon the most beautiful skyline I have ever seen in my life, in that instant I wished a taxi would never arrive. Why I didn’t photograph that skyline I do not know. How to describe it? I can only say it was medieval, exotic, Aladdin, an oasis of minarets and palm trees. I suspect it was a group of tombs within the City of the Dead, a vast area where over a million people live amongst the corpses.

Cairo is a city of surprises too, where on my birthday while walking amongst the pyramids in Giza a group of men had followed me and whistled and called me “Hot Girl! Hot Girl!” over and over again, how it had taught me about myself. I could never have imagined in middle age being described as hot or even as a girl! The pyramids for me were just a footnote though. To me Cairo has little to do with Pharonic Egypt or Tutankhamun, to me the city is Al Qahira, the Islamic city named after the planet Mars which astronomers had noted was in ascend when they were attempting to name the city, Mars, the warrior, the victorious. An infinite exoticism so perfectly balanced, yet it’s beauty seemed to hold in it’s hand a trace of savage.

It was on my first day with jetlag and unable to sleep after a long flight from China that, half dazed, I had wandered into the old Fatamid city. Under a scorching sun I had sought refuge along darkened alleyways, touching cold marble and lost, dressed in a cocktail dress and high heels I remember I had stepped over dead cats and animal entrails, had peered into the eyes of terrified rabbits caged next to the butcher’s slab, through swarms of flies and clouds of snowy dust thrown up by men hammering names onto pearly white grave stones, and how I had felt burning sparks on my skin as I passed the blacksmith, how my eyes had gazed upon the glint of ornate goldleaf calligraphy above a half submerged doorway which was being devoured further by discarded newspapers and amongst it all lay a sleeping leper. Upon my magic carpet odyssey I had reached the foot of a gigantic, honeycomb gate which seemed to tower above me, topped off by two stunningly beautiful minarets.

Sometimes the stars align so perfectly and that is what happened as I reached the top of one of those minarets as, on cue, what seemed like a thousand muezzins called the faithful to pray as white birds flew in unison through a cobalt sky. I had been reminded of a day at the end of the 20th century when I had stood on a bridge in Luxembourg City and had watched a solar eclipse and, as the sun blackened I had, for a split second, forgot who I was. Lost in that celestial moment I had become aware I was wearing old clothes of crude, rough fabric as if I were back in the dark ages. I felt, possibly, I had viewed an eclipse back then too. It was a very strange feeling, something I have never been able to forget or to figure out. A conscious out of body experience I guess. Timeless. That moment above Cairo was almost the same, profound and majestic. The sensory overload one of the highlights of my life. I always return to those minarets now whenever I visit the city to coincide with the call to prayer and everytime I try to absorb the city below into my being, to make it a part of me for eternity. I have come to learn that the gate is called Bab Zuweila, a place steeped in history, most of it gory.

I have my favorite haunts in Cairo. One of them being a little nondescript teahouse which I had discovered that first day. It was after climbing that minaret I had walked further past plastic orange chairs and merchants frying food on the street that I had noticed the red petals of a tree and, captivated by the way it contrasted so deeply onto the walls of an ancient looking mosque, I had stood there for a few minutes. I sat down across the street from it at a sidewalk table of that very teahouse. It is in that teahouse I learned to love sugary jet black tea and also learned how to shoo away flies while at the same time enjoying the streetscapes. I find places like Milan and Zurich very boring now, very airbrushed. In those cities you wouldn’t see a family of six zoom past all balanced onto a single moped or a ricksaw passing it’s sole passenger a cow’s head or the indecipherable calls of merchants which go on from dawn till dusk. On that first day an elderly gentleman must have noticed me staring at that mosque and pulling out an Egyptian fifty pound note he showed me that the mosque printed on it was the very same mosque I was staring at, called Qogmas Al-Ishaqi. I love sitting in that teahouse now and have enjoyed the subtle changes of that tree in all seasons and watching the people and traffic go by. Sometimes I will go inside the mosque, like stepping inside a gigantic treasure box of stained glass.

To me Cairo is the most exciting city in the world right now and the only one I long to return to, the one I think about all of the time, the only one I gush about to my friends, the only one who can seduce me, the only one whose treasures can match mine, the place named after the stars, the place that lives up so perfectly to it’s nickname, The Mother of the Earth.

 

 

 

 

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The face I deserve in Beijing.


Reminiscing and looking for signs of aging in the mirror it seemed like I had been another person who had lived in another world when I had last set foot in the People’s Republic. Memories of lush forests and the South China Sea seemed distant now, this China was not the same. Vast, remote, toxic and pale were the words that flashed across my mind as the plane circled the winter city, like crossing the surface of a crystallized moon, even the ashen buildings seemed to eradicate into the anemic soil.

Wakeup calls were always the same in this new China. Riot police would bark through loud speakers around 6am and then the clearances would begin. Not only had my former self ceased to exist but Old China would cease to exist too  … by any means possible. Boots against concrete, the sound of crashing walls and then the pleading, the crying in languages I could only assume must have been Chinese. I wondered if we would be next. Even though my hotel was beautiful and the staff didn’t seem to bat an eyelid to the asbest cloud meandering through the alley I still wondered if I would be homeless. I did notice the ramschakle buildings surrounding us seemed a bit haphazard while my hotel was well planned and firm. The hotel gave me a card to show to the riot police who had blocked off our alley so that I could come and go. I had been charmed by the idea of staying in a hutong, a traditional low-rise section of the city. These old areas are snapshots of how Peking used to be. Little did I know this was the part of the city that was being razed to make way for the 21st Century.

The say everything in America is bigger but in China it is huge. Train stations felt like airports and the queues at security check points were on a daunting scale. These checkpoints were everywhere. One frozen morning while shuffling in a queue towards a checkpoint on the outskirts of the Forbidden City I glared at one of those regimented soldiers. She was grabbing a poorly dressed man by the scruff of the neck and that man, all he could seem to do was smile politely.

Mostly central Beijing is on a grid. The wide systematic boulevards seemed to stamp their muddy footprints across the downtrodden soul of the city. Lined by dank Socialist highrise or secretive office blocks, speeding traffic and choking fumes I couldn’t work out where the appeal lay within this futuristic city planning or the sanity of the city planners themselves. Once while sitting beside a memorial to Lenin and Marx I saw a man on a bicycle get run over by a Mercedes. The driver jumped out, stuffed some money into the man’s hand then drove off again. The modern city felt warlike. While walking I managed to cover great swathes of the city and preferred to stick to the lowrise hutongs, using my phone to map through the labyrinth of alleyways. The last traces of a human soul could still be found in those alleyways. I would delight in getting lost feeling like a ghost observing the Chinese life but in no way part of it. I knew no westerner could ever be fully accepted into China and I was at peace with that. The older sections felt recognizable, familiar. It was there in the low city that I loved Beijing most, red lanterns swaying in the moonlight, the sound of opera from the radio, insects being sold as snacks, old ladies in furs walking Pekinese (everyone seemed to have a Pekinese), laughter, the sweet delicious smell of bread, pockets of silence. I imagined little had changed in the genetic makeup of Beijing there. It had a magical aura that the rest of the city didn’t have. It had life.

I had decided to visit the Forbidden City. What is strange about Beijing is that if you want to visit Tian’anmen Square (which is open space)  you have to go through security controls. I waited for over an hour in one, shuffling with the Chinese through the nippy frost. Now and then a baby would unceremoniously be placed into my arms for a photo, families lined up around me, they seemed to like my blonde hair and blue eyes. Once while standing a family had even positioned themselves behind me for a family portrait only I had my back to the lens which I thought odd.

Still China was alien. These interactions were minimal as if they didn’t see me at all,  they didn’t know me. I was just another Nordic hologram, alien to their eyes that had to be captured on camera holding their offspring. Maybe it was seen to bring luck, maybe I would be framed and put on the wall of a shack in the most obscure parts of the country. China is like Japan. People are polite but still you feel no part of their society. I thought back to Iran, Romania, Peru, India, the places where I had amazing interactions with their citizens. I longed for a deeper human connection.

I have mixed feelings about Beijing. I had heard that the Communist Annual Conference was happening on Tian’anmen Square so maybe that was why security had been tightened. Maybe that was why there were many security controls. I had heard because of the conference industry had been put on hold to clear the skies and true, I had never saw the infamous toxic fog. Maybe with Communism the people still saw westerners in some ways as an enemy and that is why interaction were to a minimum.

The Chinese are so far off from my world, to me as pale and remote as the landscapes they inhabit. As the plane took off I left memories of The Lover and China behind. I was heading towards the Middle East unbeknown to me towards the city of my dreams, towards the city of my future, Cairo.

The woman on Bloubergstrand.

Whenever I meet people who, like me, have lived in both New York and Los Angeles I always ask them which city they prefer. The answer seems to tell me so much about the personality of the person i’m talking too.

I had heard so much about Cape Town for many years, it’s stunning location, Table Mountain, the beaches, the penguins, the white sand and oceans. Cape Town seemed to have everything. So, why, as I walked across the City Centre did my heart seem to sink? I guess for me it was a matter of energy, chemistry and Cape Town didn’t have any of them.

I kept thinking back to Johannesburg, how people had warned me never to walk in downtown alone and how in the end I had gone against their advice and in doing so discovered Johannesburg as exciting, gritty, raw, edgy in the same way Manhattan can be. Quite simply Johannesburg had been fabulous. After a few hours walking around Cape Town I felt the city and it’s lack of energy stifling, too European, too claustrophobic, too neat and pretty. This is a city I decided where people exist but don’t live. I took one look at the Waterfront, the new development around the harbour and promised myself never to walk there again. After my seperation my soul felt vulnerable, I didn’t need pointless materialism and glass and chrome buildings to crush it further.

As for landscapes, Cape Town really does have them in abundance, probably one of the most beautifully located cities in the world matching Rio de Janeiro for sure. As I stood on Table Mountain and looked down on Cape Town I realised it could never be as visually stunning as say Hong Kong from Victoria Peak. I had planned to stay in Cape Town for a week and after the first day realised it was going to be a struggle to get through it. I wondered if it was me and if I may be just another jaded traveller.

Days were spent visiting various beaches all the while searching for penguins and seals. One day I had made my way down to Cape Point by helicopter, the coastline marvellous. Another place I truly loved was Kirstenbosch, the cities Botanical Garden nestled into the side of Table Mountain. Kirstenbosch was for me the most beautiful Botanical Garden I have ever walked through and a real pleasure to explore.

I did manage to find real meaning in Cape Town though, life changing meaning. It happened one morning as I walked along Bloubergstrand, a beach on the Atlantic with sweeping views towards Table Mountain. It was here on this beach that my life took on a new course.

Flying down the coast of Africa.

Since May 2015 you could say I had, I guess, existed mentally in some sort of parrallel life to my own. Not quite a part of my own self. I was still me ofcourse, still Grace, but I was living in denial, denial that my relationship was over, denial that I had lost the love of my life. It was on Bloubergstrand that morning that this denial stage of my lost relationship ended.

It had something to do with the ocean, the feeling of sand between my toes, the noise of sea gulls, the crashing sound of breakers hitting rocks, the Atlantic itself with it’s hints of endless possibility, the laughter of children and in the distance Table Mountain looming under a perfect blue sky. It dawned on me that the life I was living, that part of me that wasn’t in denial, was living a pretty darn incredible life, and that in that moment I was looking at Table Mountain, the iconic horizon recognised the world over.  A few months earlier I had lunch somewhere across that ocean on Corcovado, and before that had hitchhiked further out alone across the High Andes. The day before on a whim I had chartered my own helicopter to take me to where a continent ended and two oceans met. I reminded myself that I loved human beings in all their forms and they seemed to love me too, that life was incredible, that our planet was beautiful.

I took a photo of Table Mountain that morning seen from Bloubergstrand.  When I got home I framed it. It hangs on the wall of my kitchen to remind me that life goes on, to remind me that I’m lucky to live the life I lead, that in ways our planet with it’s most famous vistas have been handed to me on a silver platter. It was in South Africa that I found the ability to let the past go, to reach a turning point in my life.

That very moment on Bloubergstrand!

I had decided on that morning that, while I was incapable of falling in love again, at least for right now anyway,I would try to go on dates again and to be open to the idea of having a relationship, atleast in theory. It had been 16 months since my relationship had ended, girlfriends had reminded me that I was good looking, they had even set up blind dates in the hope I would move on with my life. It’s not you I had confessed, it’s me. In the haze of denial I had been aware that men had asked me on dates but I had been closed, they had just been holograms and nothing more.

Now I would live, things would be very different from now on. I would completely transform my appearance, I would wear dresses and dye my hair blond, I would wear the strongest red lipstick I could find, I would never wear denim again. As a broken human I promised myself that I would try to be attractive again. I promised myself that on Bloubergstrand that day, a morning when I had hardly looked in the mirror getting ready, that my hair had uncaringly been put into a pony tail, a morning when I had wore jeans and sneakers. The woman I was on Bloubergstrand would never be allowed to exist again, she would fade forever. I promised myself that.

 

They say you can never live, to truly understand what life means until you experience pain or heartbreak. I believe this to be true. If you ever find yourself going through a tough patch then do not try and rush your emotions or sweep them away but embrace them and the life lesson they carry. It may take a day, a week, years but your life will go on, you will become strong again.

 

 

Life’s lessons in Johannesburg.

Johannesburg

 

As the final call was being made for the flight to South Africa I still had to show my boarding pass. I was in tears talking to my friend Sonja on the phone who was demanding that I must, no matter what, get on that flight, that I must get away from Amsterdam and everything familiar for a while and most important I must break away from the emotions that had been consuming me for the past months.

 

Johannesburg

Johannesburg, the city of what could have been

Being on long haul flights are a time when I normally reflect on my life, my actions. I had thought about my trip to Romania, how I had loved it there and of Peru and the beauty of the Andes. I realised that on those trips and the months between I had just existed but was not living. The problem was that my emotions and the fact I was unable to let them go, that these emotions were preventing me from loving life. I needed to be my old self again, the person who is endlessly sweet, so polite that your grandparents would adore me, who genuinely likes everyone when meeting them.

 

Although the drive into Johannesburg was a bit scary and downtown felt sinister at night I still knew I was going to like this city. Johannesburg was the city of what-could-have-been as in my early twenties I had been offered a job in South Africa but in the end had rejected it. Now I was seeing Jo’burg for the first time and wondered if I too, in this city, would have suffered during a painful seperation or if this city would have been kinder to me than what Amsterdam had been.

Reef Hotel

watching the sunset from the hotel lounge

The high point of Johannesburg had been the sunsets, sitting in the rooftop lounge of my hotel watching the red skies reflect in the skyscrapers. Although some men had tried to strike up conversations with me I had, as always, declined, opting to watch the birds fly in formation across downtown, just to stare out towards the city. In a way to be honest that was all I was capable of at that moment in my life.

Afternoons I would walk around downtown. The reception of my hotel had  pleaded with me to go everywhere by car and that the streets were dangerous. Now when you say that to me I will make a point of walking everywhere. Johannesburg dangerous? Actually along with the Lili Elbe movie, the sunsets from the hotel it was the people of Johannesburg who made something inside me click. Their energy, friendliness, their vulnerability gave me the first ideas of trying to live again, not to exist anymore, but to live, really live!

 

Searching for Dora at Central do Brasil.


Botafogo

Familiar but not quite, that is how I would describe Brazil. I came to this conclusion after watching the chocolate seller, a woman in her forties with the type of face that you’d imagine had seen it all but through everything still had enough determination to flash a smile with tones of gentleness. Watching her walk along Praia do Flamengo selling her homemade chocolates wrapped in pretty ribbons the scene seemed familiar but it was the realisation that my imagination along with Loulou’s were on overdrive that made us conclude that Brazil has a slight touch of the exotic to make it different enough to make us feel like outsiders looking in.

Flamengo

Sugarloaf Mountain

Flamengo from Sugarloaf

Top: Sugarloaf at sunset from Flamengo Beach.

Middle: Cablecar up to the summit.

Bottom: Praia do Flamengo from Sugarloaf.

Somewhere along our journey we had decided to write a book, a sort of haphazard love letter to Brazil, the country which never ceased to offer us an abundance of characters. The chocolate seller, she had now turned into a bitter serial killer, once spurned by a foreign lover her chocolates and pretty ribbons now concealed a measure of arsenic to those who reminded her of those days when love had brought her near to heaven. Then there was the beautiful girl sitting on her balcony in an expensive condo in Copacabana. To us she had married a rich man who had took her away from poverty and now a kept woman in a gilded cage she would sit there bored everyday staring towards the ramshackle huts of the favela and longing for her childhood she would reminisce of those days that had felt worth living. Then there was the beautiful boy with green eyes wearing the sky blue t-shirt riding Bus 174 through Botafogo.  He lived in the favela where he would spend his days building a chapel made of cardboard and wood. He would only come down to the asphalt city to search for discarded newspapers and posters, hoping to find images of Jesus in them which would become the great Michelangelo artwork of his sanctuary. Yes, at first sight Brazil seemed familiar but it is when you realise that you are an outsider looking in that you understand this is not some lost European country but rather somewhere with it’s own unique identity.

Warsaw on Sea

Warsaw-on-Sea. The Centro district Rio de Janeiro.

Rio

While I know for sure that Brazilians are the kindest people I have ever met I couldn’t quite make up my mind about the Cidade Maravilhosa and it’s reputations of beauty. Most of the architecture of downtown Rio is modern bordering on brutalist and if it wasn’t for the cities location nestled between Sugarloaf, Corcovado and Tijuca National Park I could have quite easily christened it Warsaw-on-Sea. Rio de Janeiro is definitely not my kind of city. Show me the sardines vying for space on a packed beach and I will run a mile. The same goes for certain cities with their myths of glamour and the people attracted to it, who, too busy making selfies in the latest place to be seen hardly notice the beggars they are stepping over.

Ipanema

Ipanema late afternoon

Of all the beaches in Rio there was only one I actually enjoyed and that was the one nicknamed The Poor Man’s Beach, Flamengo. If you just want to sit somewhere quiet sipping on a cocktail unpretentiously wrapped in polystyrene without the endless hawkers and crowds then head for Flamengo around sunset and marvel at the great hulk of Sugarloaf Mountain. Here it’s façade seems gigantic and as the slipping sun will make it’s rockface turn quite volcanic you will marvel at the children and their confidence as they swim in the breakers which seem to my eyes more used to the North Sea quite terrifying. The same cannot be said for posh Ipanema or crowded Copacabana and while the walk along Ipanema and Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica was truly iconic I longed for the back streets of Old Delhi with their chaos and grime where life seems far more edgier.

Guanabara Bay

The famous view from Corcovado.

One morning Loulou and I followed the tourist trail up to the summit of Corcovado to view Christ the Redeemer. While the statue is beautiful but much smaller than I had imagined the views were astounding. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself while watching the tourists all crammed on the balcony below, which from that angle made them look like one big angry cockroach their waving selfie sticks like the insect’s antennae reaching out trying to catch something, for the tourists just a memory. Sugarloaf was no different. Unhappy queues of tourists crammed into cable cars for the ride up to the summit and while the views again were amazing it was the crowds that made me want to flee. I was surprised though that on top of Sugarloaf there is small forest where if you search long enough you can just about escape from the crowds although I suspect the marmosets have become jaded or wise and fled the summit long ago.

Rio from above

Jardim Botanico

The Avenue of Palms in the Jardim Botânico. When you tell me these Botanical Gardens are amongst the world’s finest I was expecting far more!

Rio Jardim Botanico

Walking in “the armpit” … this neighbourhood is nicknamed so because it’s located under Christ’s right armpit.

Jardim Botanico

Parque Lage

There was only one moment in Rio and actually the rest of Brazil that had for me eclipsed all others and that was in the unlikely location of Rio’s main train station called Central do Brasil. It must have been sometime last winter when cycling home from work in a particulary nasty downpour that I had got home looking and feeling like a drowned rat, the prospect of the upcoming darkened months seemed to have weighed heavier on my shoulders that day. Trying to cheer myself up while dancing to Bossa Nova music on Youtube I had stumbled upon a Brazilian movie called Central do Brasil.Corcovado from Parque Lage

Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer from Parque Lage.

Artwork Rio I

Artwork in the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage.

Artwork Rio II

Artwork Rio III

Central do Brasil tells the story of a boy searching for his father who becomes friends with a letter writer who sits in the main hall of the cities train station. This film captures Brazil and it’s emotions so beautifully that I couldn’t help but watch it a number of times and it was this film that made me decide to go to Brazil. One afternoon after walking what seemed like all over the city I would say fate brought me towards the train station where approaching it’s main hall I had felt a rush of excitement, the only time I had felt that in Brazil.

Central do Brasil

The building of dreams…Central do Brasil!

This moment is when I could say I loved Brazil the most standing at a coffee counter in Central do Brasil’s main hall wearing my beat up strawhat and dusty clothes where I sipped on an intense cafezinho and gazed across the crowds searching for Dora, the letter writer and Josue, the lost boy. In doing so I saw all of Brazil unfold before my eyes. People with unfamilar provincial features were flowing into the city carrying their lives in one suitcase, their sparkling eyes crammed full of dreams, while others, the downbroken, were going back home dejected by the Marvelous City and all that it had offered them. In between it all smartly dressed business workers could have been flowing out towards the suburbs after a day’s work lost in their thoughts and drama of big city life while beggars milled around in search of a few reais. The only thing that seemed permanent was the building itself with it’s huge images lining the main wall. These were of places in Brazil like Brasilia and São Paulo now faded and covered in dirt showcasing the country in another time when Brazil had seemed more optimistic. In that moment I understood the vastness of Brazil, of the world, and us, just one in billions with our hopes and dreams we are all in someway searching for the Cidade Maravilhosa.

Subscribe to my blog! Next up: Life’s Lessons in Johannesburg.

 

The White Dove of Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto

Sometimes life throws something straight at you and I experienced this the first time I ever saw a photo of Ouro Preto. In the picture was a town nestled in hills but my eye was instantly drawn towards the quite unremarkable moss-covered church on a hill where I knew I was going to see some sort of sign. Later I found out this church was called São Francisco de Paula and that my premonition of a sign had been correct all along.

Set along the Royal Road leading from Rio up into the hills to the town of Diamantina, Ouro Preto was the old capital of the state of Minas Gerais and is considered by some to be the finest, most picture-perfect town in all of Brazil. In 1750 more people were living in Ouro Preto than New York and five times that of the population of Rio de Janeiro. At first named Vila Rica (Rich Town) and for long the wealthiest town in the Americas the name had later been changed to Ouro Preto meaning Black Gold. The town was also the location of the Inconfidência Mineira, the first uprising for independence in Brazil. It was led by an inhabitant of Ouro Preto, a dentist named Joaquim José da Silva Xavier better known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller). The Portuguese crushed the uprising and Tiradentes was dismembered his limbs scattered along the Royal Road to terrorize the populace while his head was said to have been exhibited on the main square where a stone pillar marks the spot today.

Praça Tiradentes

Praça Tiradentes and the stone pillar with a statue of Tiradentes on top

Leaving the bus station we decided to walk into town as the quotes the taxi drivers where throwing at us were outrageous considering our hotel was only a fifteen minute walk away. We strolled along a cracked sidewalk which was no easy feat considering my suitcase was a spinner and past a custard-coloured church. Turning the corner of the church towards it’s façade I realised it had been built on a ridge overlooking the town which was suddenly revealed before us like a surreal oil painting by Alberto da Veiga Guignard. I couldn’t help but notice that the town was sloping away from us and built on steep hills giving the impression of a perilous sea of orange rooftops and rainbow-coloured window frames, between the waves loomed the huge steeples of Baroque churches acting as lighthouses for mankind before the homes surged towards the horizon and into the foothills of Itacolomi State Park. They were right, with it’s cobbled lanes, iron lanterns and red shutters Ouro Preto was indeed beautiful and inhaling the smell of a million eucalyptus trees I realised I could quite happily visit there every year.

Pousa do Chixo Rei

Pousa do Chico Rei just after dawn

Chico Rei detail

drawing on the wall of Chico Rei

Famous guests

Pousa do Chico Rei is full of framed drawings and letters, here is Guignard

Marvelling at the wrought iron balconies and artsy shops selling regional stones like topaz and diamonds we walked past the town’s main square, Praça Tiradentes, and turning right at the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo made our way along Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira to the Pousa do Chico Rei where we would be staying. I couldn’t remember why I had decided to stay there but vaguely knew that it would be something special. After walking into the reception area I realised I was in some sort of shrine, snapshots of a life seemed to line it’s walls with poems and love letters, of faded photos and silly doodles framed in glass. Reading the name Lilli over and over again I realised where I was, the former home of Lilli Correia de Araújo, the Danish innkeeper who had lived here and had hosted a who’s who of the twentieth century. I adored everything about this 18th century building, the massive, creaking bedroom doors with even bigger gaol-like iron keys, antique beds that could have been from the palace in Sintra, squeaky floorboards smoothed from footsteps of long ago, the incredible views across town from it’s rambling garden and most of all the fact that it seemed as if Loulou and I were the only traveler’s who knew of it’s existence. On every trip it is a small pastime of mine to try to find a connection to the journey I had taken previously and spotting a painting of Saint Michael by the Cusco School on the wall of the breakfast area I felt a nod of recognition from Peru and saw it as a good sign.

The guesthouse is now run by Lilli’s grandson Ricardo and as he led us upstairs, at times tripping over a small, black, grey-moustashed mongrel, he told us we were the only guests and we would be staying in the best room of the house, the Pablo Neruda Suite named after the Chilean poet-diplomat who had stayed there. I was fascinated reading the names of former guests like Kissinger and Burle Max and knew I was going to sleep in a place surrounded by the ghosts of people I admire. I must say I have the best memories staying there, talking with Loulou for hours on end, running across squeaking floorboards at all hours of the night, raiding the kitchen for snacks and most of all the feeling we were free to explore the whole building. It really was like staying with your long lost uncle who was never around. I wondered too about the conversations that had been debated here, Marxism and Hedonism when Sartre and de Beauvoir had slept here, or of Guignard and his ideas of dreamy landscapes, of the laughter and clinking of wine glasses of all those years ago. Talking with Loulou about our own varied, alternative lives I wondered if the guests of past would have welcomed us too. At night as I lay on the bed clutching my stomach still in the last throws of food poisoning I couldn’t help but think of our room’s namesake, Pablo Neruda, and the irony of it all when he, in the last hours of his life, had too, clutched his stomach and pleaded for help from his wife convinced that he had been poisoned by members of the Pinochet regime.

Most of all I cherished the moments around dawn when I would try to hush the creaking doors and tiptoe across the living room floor and sit on the balcony where I could marvel at the church right outside. This was the spot where Elizabeth Bishop had wrote her poem Under the Window: Ouro Preto. As I thought of her words “…here am I for whom you have been waiting…” I would stare towards the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo which at that time would be bathed in the softest kaleidoscope of purples and pinks sliding across it’s façade. The fat-cheeked cherubs sculpted by Aleijadinho seemed to dance in this light, hovering above the doorway it was as if they were dancing for me, a final show from Christianity before I turned my back on it forever.

Nossa Senhora do Carmo

Nossa Senhora do Carmo. This is the view from the balcony of Pousa do Chico Rei at dawn

Ouro Preto Sunrise

the first light of a new day on Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira

Places with hills are always a shock for me at first as I spend most of my time in The Netherlands but being in Ouro Preto and fighting both food poisoning, a viral infection and along with that the hot temperatures after coming out of a European winter, walking in the town was particulary tough but I managed to soldier along. I believe it was the kindness of the inhabitants of the town and the amazing companionship of Loulou that helped with my recovery.

Ouro Preto is famous for it’s churches, the soapstone market and it’s souvenirs of white doves so days were spent wandering it’s lanes buying presents made of soapstone and visiting the many churches, my favorite being the Igreja Santa Efigênia. Named after an Ethiopian saint this church didn’t have the wealth of it’s more famous neighbours like the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Pilar with it’s 400kg of gold but it was it’s history that beamed it into the stars for me.  Santa Efigênia had been funded by the slaves who had been shipped over from Africa. It is said the churches construction had been funded by the gold dust collected in the fountain where the slaves had washed their hair after being forced to work in the mines. It was amazing to look inside this church and see traces of Africa in it’s artwork although such a pity it’s not allowed to take photos.

Ouro Preto Church

Morning in Ouro Prero

Minas Gerais

Dawn Ouro Preto

Ouro Preto flora

Ouro Preto Bridge

find the puppy!

Pousa do Chico Rei

Pousa do Chico Rei from Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo

Ouro Preto Rays

man catching the first sunlight on Praça Tiradentes

As the days passed and our list of churches to visit were ticked off there still loomed the moss-covered church of São Francisco de Paula which was ever-present from our room window. As this was the church I had saw in that first photo I told Loulou that I needed to go there before we left the town although I didn’t know why and that I knew I would see something. It all sounded a bit crazy but having faith she walked with me over to the Tourist Information Office where we hired a driver who told us there were nicer churches than that one but still I was adamant that we must go there. Driving into the grounds of the church I was shocked. It was the only church in the town, and infact the rest of what I had saw in Brazil, that seemed unkept. Covered in grafitti and locked up with smashed windows I realised it was in the type of place where you have to watch out that you don’t step on used syringes. My heart sank thinking I could never see anything remarkable in such a place as that and feeling defeated we asked the driver just to drive us around and take us to places where he thought could be interesting.

It wasn’t until later when we were on the other side of the town that I noticed across the valley stood the abandoned church and right above it was a cloud in the shape of a white dove with outstretched wings. I knew instantly that this was the sign I was seeking although I didn’t know what it all meant. I later asked a shopkeeper why they sell so many trinkets of white doves and she told me in Brazil they place them above their doorways to protect households and that in Christianity it symbolizes the Holy Spirit. All through my journeys into Romania, Peru and now Brazil I had visited many churches and had now become aware that all along I had been saying in some way a farewell to Christianity, a religion that I had loved as a child. It was amazing for me to see this sign, the White Dove as a cloud, confirming that there is something higher that we don’t understand. The White Dove, a symbol of peace the world over, it was in many ways closure for me and a confirmation that I must persevere on my journey towards belief but in a different form.

White Dove Ouro Preto

the cloud that changed it all, on the left hovering above the Igreja São Francisco de Paula

It’s strange why sometimes we have to travel half way across the world just to find what we always had at home and in Brazil I realised this . . . I had belief. The White Dove of Ouro Preto was the sign I needed in my life, a final blessing from Christianity and a form of guidance for me to embrace a new religion, one that I had been aware of as a four year old child and one that I had been aware of even before that of Christianity.

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Following Aleijadinho’s footsteps to Mariana.

Minas Gerais Landscape

As we travelled north west from Rio de Janeiro into one of Brazil’s largest states Minas Gerais I enjoyed the idea of the unknown. It was a part of my trip that I had not researched and all I had to go on was a photo of a beautiful colonial town that had reminded me of a favorite place of mine in Portugal, Coimbra, and more tragically of the Bento Rodrigues disaster which had been all over the news only a few months earlier.

As the gritty industrial suburbs of Rio faded into farmland shadowy mountain ridges of cool blue set against rolling hills and forests of emerald green seemed to go on forever. As beautiful as it was I couldn’t help but think of it’s rivers, poisoned by the toxic sludge from Bento Rodrigues which was slicing through the landscapes on it’s way to the Atlantic. I had expected a displaced people and areas cordoned off but realised Minas Gerais was so vast that it was impossible to notice anything out of the ordinary. There were no sandbags or army jeeps or television helicopters with cameramen, just sleepy towns where life seemed to go on as usual.

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I was following the footsteps and legend of Aleijadinho. A man who some say had never existed while others say was the child of an African slave, the father being a famous Portuguese mason. Aleijadinho was said to have decorated some of the regions most beautiful churches and the legend goes that as his life progressed he had lost his limbs to leprosy. This didn’t stop him from his passion and he would ask people to bind what was left of his limbs with chisels and hammers and then be hoistered up to continue his work which seems looking back now to have been executed at a frenetic pace. I was intrigued by the story of Aleijadinho and knowing I would never uncover the truth at least I would have his artwork to admire.

Mariana

Sleepy Mariana

Mariana is the oldest of the colonial towns in Minas Gerais, named after Dona Maria Ana of Austria, the wife of Dom João V. Gold had been discovered in this region which gave the townsfolk enough money to build elaborate homes and churches and as the Portuguese style was much in fashion at the time the streets began to look no different than towns thousands of kilometres away. It was said that in the rush to discover gold the towns grew so fast that there had been at one time a shortage of food where people had starved to death clutching gold nuggets in their hands.

Church in Mariana

Nossa Senhora do Carmo Church

Square Mariana

a sleepy square

Mariana steeples

Mariana Brazil

Mariana Minas Gerais

church towers of São Francisco Church

I would have liked to stay in Mariana longer and while away the days on it’s town squares and to have explored more of it’s churches but I was aware of Brazil, it’s exotic vastness, and how I would need to move on, to explore this great land in more detail. The great jewel of Minas Gerais was calling me, Ouro Preto, a town not far from Mariana and said by some to be the most beautiful in Brazil.

Subscribe to my blog! Next up: The White Dove of Ouro Preto.